By Stephen Beech via SWNS
Humans – not lions – are now the most feared “super predator” on the grass plains of Southern Africa, reveals new research.
Fear of humans far exceeds that of the big cats among elephants, rhinos, giraffes and 19 other mammals across the savannah, according to the study,
The findings add to growing evidence from wildlife experiments around the world showing fear of the human “super predator” pervades the planet.
Biology Professor Liana Zanette worked with lion expert, Dr. Craig Packer, on the new study published in the journal Current Biology.
They recorded thousands of videos in South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park, one of the world’s premier protected areas and home to one of the world’s largest remaining lion populations.
Zanette and her colleagues established that local wildlife species were twice as likely to run, and abandoned waterholes in 40 percent faster time, in response to hearing human voices compared to hearing lions or hunting sounds, such as dogs barking or gunshots.
Nearly 95 percent of species ran more or abandoned waterholes faster in response to humans than to lions – with giraffes, leopards, hyenas, zebras, kudu, warthog and impala all running “significantly” more from the sound of human voices than the sound of lions.
Zanette said: “Recent global surveys show that humans kill prey at much higher rates than other predators.
“We usually think about the top of the food chain being large carnivore predators.
“But what we’re interested in is the unique ecology of humans as predators in the system, because humans are super lethal.”
Zanette, of Western University in Canada, added: “These findings add a new dimension to our worldwide environmental impacts.
“The very substantial fear of humans demonstrated here, and in comparable recent experiments, can be expected to have dramatic ecological consequences, because other new research has established that fear itself can reduce wildlife numbers.”
Zanette said global surveys show humans kill prey at much higher rates than other predators, making man a “super predator.”
She continued: “Consistent with humanity’s unique lethality, data from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, and now our work in Africa, is demonstrating that wildlife worldwide fear the human ‘super predator’ far more that each system’s non-human apex predator, like lions, leopards, wolves, cougars, bears and dogs.”
Zanette and the team deployed hidden automated camera-speaker systems at waterholes that, when triggered by an animal passing within a short distance – around 30 feet (10 meters) – filmed the response of the animal to hearing either humans speaking calmly in locally-used languages, lions snarling and growling, hunting sounds or non-threatening controls, such as bird calls.
Co-author Dr. Michael Clinchy, also a conservation biologist at Western University, said: “Normally if you’re a mammal, you’re not going to die of disease or hunger.
“The thing that actually ends your life is going to be a predator, and the bigger you are the bigger the predator that finishes you off.
“Lions are the biggest group-hunting land predator on the planet, and thus ought to be the scariest, and so we’re comparing the fear of humans versus lions to find out if humans are scarier than the scariest non-human predator.”
The human-voice clips, which were at conversational volume, came from radio or TV recordings of people speaking the four most used languages in the region.
The dogs and gunshots were meant to represent sounds associated with human hunting, and the lion vocalizations, made with the help of co-author Dr. Packer, of the University of Minnesota, were meant to signal the presence of the predator.
Dr. Clinchy said: “The key thing is that the lion vocalizations are of them snarling and growling, in ‘conversation’ as it were, not roaring at each other.
“That way the lion vocalizations are directly comparable to those of the humans speaking conversationally.”
By the end of the experiment, the team had 15,000 videos to sift through.
Zanette said: “We put the camera in a bear box, not because there are bears out in South Africa, but because of the hyenas and leopards that like to chew on them.
“One night, the lion recording made this elephant so angry that it charged and just smashed the whole thing.”
The researchers found that animals were twice as likely to run and abandon waterholes in response to hearing humans compared to hearing lions or hunting sounds.
Dr. Clinchy said: “There’s this idea that the animals are going to habituate to humans if they’re not hunted. But we’ve shown that this isn’t the case.
“The fear of humans is ingrained and pervasive, so this is something that we need to start thinking about seriously for conservation purposes.”
The team is now investigating whether their custom sound systems can be used to deliberately steer endangered species – such as the Southern white rhino – away from known poaching areas in South Africa.
So far, efforts to keep rhinos away from certain areas through the use of human voices have been successful.
Zanette said: “I think the pervasiveness of the fear throughout the savannah mammal community is a real testament to the environmental impact that humans have.
“Not just through habitat loss and climate change and species extinction, which is all important stuff. But just having us out there on that landscape is enough of a danger signal that they respond really strongly.
“They are scared to death of humans, way more than any other predator.”
She added: “These results present a significant new challenge for protected areas management and wildlife conservation, because it is now clear fear of even benign humans, like wildlife tourists, can cause these previously unrecognized impacts.”